ADAM REI was always popular among his playmates. They looked up to him and
admired his skills and spirit. Adults in his neighborhood on the outskirts of
Phnom Penh also thought the 12-year old boy was well-mannered and polite. He
would always put down his school books and help out, if somebody needed a
Only Adam Rei's parents seemed oblivious to their son's qualities.
To their despair, he had a tendency to forget time and stay out too
After several unsuccessful attempts to solve the problem with
threats, beatings and house arrest, they decided to shackle Adam Rei to the bed
- like a monkey on a chain. At least that way he would have to stay
The story of Adam Rei is but one example highlighting the tendency
among Cambodian parents to believe that the only way of raising and educating
their children is through beatings and physical punishment.
experts, adults have difficulties communicating with the young and don't
understand the world of their offspring - the consequence of an enormous
generation gap, stemming from kids and parents growing up in radically different
Adolescents especially are often left with nobody to talk to
about their misgivings through a difficult period of their lives. And while it
is not unusual for parents to abandon their young kids completely, many
teenagers turn their backs on traditional family values, as they are lured into
a life of freewheeling and crime.
In the case of Adam Rei, his parents
eventually told him that they would kill him if he stayed out too late once
again. But their son was never good at keeping track of the hours, and the next
time Adam Rei discovered that he had been away too long, he simply didn't dare
to go home.
The youngster slept on the street for two or three days,
before his parents found him. They then erected a tall fence around their house
and kept Adam Rei, his two younger brothers, aged four and six, and their nanny
locked up all day.
Unfortunately, Adam Rei's playmates decided to
liberate him by breaking through the gate. After that incident, the chain came
Not until the situation came to the attention of human rights group
Licadho was the boy freed from his shackles. He had been in chains for almost
one month, but is now living in an orphanage in Phnom Penh.
don't understand the psychology of kids," says Sou Sophorn Nara of the
children's organization Redd Barna.
"They think their children will only
improve if disobedience or misbehavior is punished with beatings. But they don't
explain to the children why they beat them or what they have done wrong, so
instead the kids lose their confidence and are discouraged to
In a survey from 1996, carried out by the organization Project
Against Domestic Violence (PADV), more than two out of three Cambodians believed
it was right to hit their children as a disciplinary measure. The main reasons
for punishing children were if they were noisy, quarrelsome or impolite to
According to PADV, one effect of this culture of physical
punishment is that violence creates violence. A girl who is beaten by her
parents will often later in life beat her own kids, and a boy who is accustomed
to physical punishment is likely to develop violent tendencies towards his
Another misunderstanding of children's psychology is
expressed by parents abandoning their kids - mostly in order to go and search
for work in other parts of the country. Very young children are usually left
with a relative, while older ones often become orphans. It is quite normal that
the parents stay away for years.
"I guess when you already have ten
children, number eleven doesn't really matter," muses Eva Galabru of
But worse scenarios unfold when parents deliberately abandon
children who have become lost.
"Every year at Khmer New Year, we worry
about what will happen. Families travel around the country. Kids get lost in the
crowds. But parents nevertheless return home without finding them. They seem to
think that the young ones are able to find their way home themselves," says
Sebastien Marot of the children and community organization Friends/Mith
Meanwhile, the gap between young and old generations is
widening. Cambodian parents of today grew up under and in the aftermath of the
Pol Pot regime, where family patterns and values were crushed by the Khmer
Rouge. They developed their outlook on life during the following years of
hardship and international isolation.
Their offspring, however, are born
into a Cambodia that is increasingly influenced by foreign and particularly
western values. The children's beliefs are formed with input from Thai movies,
karaoke videos, billboards advertising the Marlboro Man and other parts of the
omnipresent Coca-Cola culture.
"Every day we see examples of how parents
don't understand their sons and daughters. Sometimes, they simply watch their
children's world with disbelief. The kids, on the other hand, are torn between
wanting to be good children by respecting their parents' values and wanting to
move on and create their own," says Sebastien Marot.
Instead of trying to
cope with the reality of their youngsters, many better-off parents use money to
justify their lack of attention or understanding.
"Adult Cambodians of
today have a wrong perception of values," says sociologist Bit Seanglim, who
wrote the book The Warrior Heritage.
"They think that just because they
have a good, well-paid job, it also means that they are a good father or mother.
The more money they give their kids, the better parents they think they are. But
at the same time they neglect their sons and daughters - they don't talk with
them, spend quality time with them or try sincerely to understand their
Not that Cambodian adolescents mind the money their
parents give them. On the contrary, they need it and want it badly in a culture
where fancy clothes, fast motorbikes and a smart haircut will buy you prestige
and admiration among those of your age.
"Also, there's not much to do in
Phnom Penh, if you're young. And the few existing activities such as video
games, pool and snooker halls, karaoke bars, brothels and casinos all cost
money," says Valérie Taton, consultant at UNICEF.
youngsters' need for a constant cash flow may at some point push them into
criminal offenses - and often their parents are the first victims. This was the
case for 17-year old Saravuth, who was recently holed up in the government's
Youth Rehabilitation Center outside Phnom Penh. When his pocket money ran out,
he simply stole his family's motorbike and sold it for $1,200.
the money to have fun and enjoy life in the city," explains
There is no sign of remorse, either in his voice or in his
eyes, that indicates that he wouldn't do it again.